The UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) – the UK government body responsible for overseeing the food industry – would not be ready for a no-deal Brexit, auditors have said.
An audit found that the department, led by environment secretary Michael Gove, was behind in its planning for a Brexit outcome that sees the UK and EU, in negotiating the UK’s withdrawal from the union, fail to agree on terms.
The National Audit Office (NAO) said that Defra’s preparations could have severe consequences on food exports, fishing, and trade.
The department is responsible for “55 of 319 work streams across government”, the NAO said. In some areas, Defra’s lack of preparation meant that – in the event of a no-deal Brexit – it would be unable to deliver what it had previously promised on time.
“For some workstreams, Defra has passed the point where it will be able to deliver what it had initially planned for a ‘no-deal’ exit in March 2019,” the NAO said.
The department has an approved budget for EU exit spending in 2018-19 of £320 million.
“What really matters now though is that Defra accelerates its medium-term planning for the Withdrawal Agreement while finalising its contingency plans. It also needs to make sure that the centre of government is fully aware of the key elements that Defra is unlikely to deliver for a no-deal scenario and of impacts on key industry sectors, such as the chemical industry, which could be seriously damaged if a negotiated settlement is not reached.”
The findings are likely to be embarrassing for environment secretary Gove, who has previously promised that his department will be ready for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
It adds further fuel to the fire for a food industry largely opposed to Brexit, which has already voiced concerns over ambiguity in its trading relationship with Europe.
Ian Wright, the chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, which has previously been outspoken in its criticism of the government’s handling of Brexit negotiations, had previously called a no-deal Brexit “a grisly prospect for UK food and drink”.
“As the consequences of a no-deal exit from the EU become ever clearer it is vital that, to protect the interests of shoppers and consumers, the government must deliver a deal with the EU,” he said.
© FoodBev Media Ltd 2019